Game Music Functions In: The Last Of Us


In Naughty Dogs 2013 hit game The Last of Us  therein lies a tale of horror, lost humanity and lingering hope. A game that is critically acclaimed for its compelling narrative and a perfect demonstration of Immersion in effect.  Immersion is a term used to describe a deep mental involvement in something. According to the definition of immersion in English, Oxford Dictionary is to Immerse someone or something in liquid”. Originating in Late 15th century: from late Latin immersio(n-), from immergere ‘dip into’. Phillips, speaks about Immersion in relation to video games occurring ‘when the gamer loses consciousness of the methods of perception and interaction in the game’

In The Last of Us, composer Gustavo Santaolalla created a minimalist style score with dissonance and resonance telling an emotional story itself at the heart of the game. It is a beautiful, haunting, sonic landscape that makes the game’s themes more emotionally involving and emphasises how Joel, Ellie, and all the characters in the game perceive the world around them. Critical reception to the soundtrack was positive. Reviewers felt that the music connected appropriately with the gameplay and acted as the perfect companion (Kerr, 2014 soundtrack review)


Instrumentation choices in video game music are vital in setting the right mood and feel to enhance the gaming experience, allowing total immersion  to occur.Phillips states that “a different instrumental arrangement can alter a theme in ways ranging from subtle to radical. Changing the instrumentation is the simpliest of all thematic alterations but can be highly effective”

For the Last of Us being a dystopian horror game at it’s core. Gustavo composes music using conventional instruments in unconventional ways. He tunes an electric guitar down an entire major third (the lowest string becomes a C instead of an E). On that guitar, there’s also a resonator, much like you’d expect on a Dobro guitar. The resonator combined with the loose strings creates an unusually dark and vibrant sound, especially when he bows it with a violin bow to produce unique sounds. He also recorded in various rooms, including a bathroom and kitchen to capture the acoustic detail of the guitars.

The use of the Leitmotif for character development

A leitmotif  (from German, meaning Leading Motive) in music is a short musical phrase that is repeated throughout a musical composition and according to Phillips and Davis  is a ‘musical theme that accompanies a specific element in the dramatic works in which it appears. This may be a character, location, or a unique situation in the Plot’  Phillips also goes on to quote a research paper from Mediated Perspectives: Journal of the New Media Dr. Joseph Defazio (2006) writes, “Composers in the game genre demonstrate the effective use of the leitmotif in their work” The Last of Us is extremely effective in it how the leitmotif is used to reinforce and remind the player of crucial concepts throughout the story development. The opening main menu theme consists of a three note leitmotif that sets the overall tone of the game. This theme itself is sparse, played on high strings and has little rhythmic development at this point, acting as a sonic soundscape for the journey the player is about to undertake. see Last of Us Main Menu Theme

This opening main menu leitmotif is what is heard at vital parts in the game as the story progresses. During the prologue mission, this theme is first heard within the game during a cutscene where the death of Joels daughter Sarah occurs. This is considered a cornerstone moment for the main character Joel. see Last of Us Sarah’s Death Theme

The leitmotif again returning sometimes as a subtle element, but during other times with more thematic development. The “Sarah” theme is reused as Ellie and Joel’s relationship develops, he becomes a father figure to her. The leitmotif, now with added string parts, making this a fuller and overall more developed theme plays a central arch in the story and is heard nearer the ending of the game. see Last of Us All Gone

Extra:  In 2015, during her undergraduate studies at Pulse College, CMPG (certificate in music production for games), The author of this blog was challenged to rescore a scene of from The Last of Us. The technique includes using the instrumentation from the original game as a pastiche but also scoring action scenes with the use of some slight mickey-mousing  (refers to a style of scoring where the music mimics every action, as in the early Mickey Mouse cartoons – (Davis, 2010) The aim was to score the scene while also being mindful of composing music under the dialogue. See: Last of Scene rescored by Sarah Sherlock



Published by Sarah Sherlock

I'm a sound designer focused on game audio and musician from Dublin,Ireland

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